These Ice Cellars Fed Arctic People for Generations. Now They’re Melting.

Nov 3, 2015

By Eli Kintisch

Building an underground ice cellar to store bowhead whale and other meat in Barrow, Alaska, is no small task. Even in the summertime, permafrost is hard as a rock a foot or so below the surface.

Last year Herman Ahsoak employed a jackhammer and drill to construct a cellar for the whaling crew he has captained for more than a decade. But in the spring, melting snow penetrated the hatch, and the 14-foot deep cellar “filled all the way to the top with water,” Ahsoak says.

Maintaining ice cellars has always been hard work for subsistence hunters in Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States. But warming temperatures have now rendered many of these underground freezers unusable. (Read about how rising temperature are also threatening desert life.

Increasingly, ice cellars that generations of native Alaskan communities have relied upon for storing food are melting, according to tribal elders and researchers. In addition to the warmer temperatures, coastal erosion and geologic ground disturbances are exacerbating the thaw.

“For many cellars even if [the temperature is] below freezing it’s not cold enough to keep meat safely,” says geophysicist Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

As a result, some Arctic residents are scrambling to find new, safe ways to store their meat.  (Read about what animals may go extinct first due to climate change.)

“This was never a problem before,” says Larry Aiken, a Barrow town elder and harpooner on a whaling crew.

Filling Up With Water

The Inupiat hunt for whale, walrus, seal, caribou, and fish, but yields from subsistence hunting ebb and flow unpredictably, making ice cellars, which generally sit 10 to 12 feet below the surface, critical for storing meat for lean months. Often shared by several families in a whaling crew, some cellars are accessed through small huts; plywood hatches cover others. (Read about how the warming Pacific Ocean makes for increasingly weird ocean life.)

Barrow’s main store, the AC Value Center, offers food delivered by plane for locals who run out of their meat and fish. But much of this processed food is not as healthy as their traditional foods, which are full of protein, minerals, fatty acids, and other nutrients.


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One comment on “These Ice Cellars Fed Arctic People for Generations. Now They’re Melting.”

  • Old joke: he’s such a good salesman, he could sell a freezer to an Eskimo!

    Now they’re asking for/ buying freezers. Article states maintaining a normal cold cellar is labour intensive. Add melting cellars, and less “off work” time to the mix. Shipped processed food is available, but not as healthy.

    The Inupiat woman’s spiritual story that whales won’t “give up” their meat unless it has fresh snow to rest on, now sounds quaint. Maybe it was a cultural incentive to keep cellars fresh. Think that tradition is dying.



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